Cholesterol ensures our bodies function properly. It is necessary for the production of hormones, Vitamin D and the bile acids that help digest food.
Our cells and our liver produce about 75 percent of our blood cholesterol. The other 25 percent comes from the saturated fat and cholesterol in the food we eat. Digestive enzymes in the stomach break down food before it enters the small intestine. In the intestines, carbohydrates, proteins and fats are broken down and absorbed through the intestinal walls to be transported through the body. In the liver, triglycerides, cholesterol and proteins form together to make LDL (low-density lipoproteins) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins). LDL carries cholesterol to all cells of the body, while HDL carries cholesterol away from cells to the liver. Triglycerides are a primary form of fat used to store energy. Like LDL, triglycerides can cause plaque buildup in blood vessels.
Genetics plays a big role in how much cholesterol our bodies produce. Some people inherit genes that cause their bodies to produce too much cholesterol or keep their bodies from absorbing enough cholesterol. They can still have high cholesterol even if they are not eating high-cholesterol food.
Too much LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, and not enough HDL, the “good” cholesterol, can place you at risk for heart disease and stroke. High cholesterol increases the buildup of plaque (a fatty substance) in the blood vessels, which hardens along the lining of the vessels. The plaque reduces or blocks blood flow and raises your risk of a heart attack, stroke or other health problems.
Several medications control the amount of cholesterol in our blood. Statins (HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors) are thought to be the best at lowering cholesterol. Statins help block production of LDL in the liver by blocking an enzyme that is key to cholesterol production. Statin medications can reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke, and the risk of life-threatening side effects is low.
According to a new cholesterol guideline from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs should now be prescribed to an estimated 33 million Americans without cardiovascular disease who have a 7.5 percent or higher risk for a heart attack or stroke within the next 10 years.
When taking statins, it is important to follow your health care provider’s instructions. Know when and how to take your medication. Do not skip doses or stop taking it. Establish a routine and keep to it for 30 days so it becomes habit. To prevent drug interactions, tell your doctor if you take other prescription and over-the-counter medications, vitamins or herbal supplements. Report any side effects right away and learn how to deal with them. Most side effects go away in a few weeks.
The side effects of statins can include muscle pain or muscle weakness; nausea, constipation or diarrhea; liver damage; and kidney failure. Recently, researchers found that for a small number of people, statins are associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Although statin side effects can be annoying, consider the benefits. Do not stop taking statin medication for any period without talking to your doctor. Note that over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen do not relieve muscle aches from statins.
Your doctor may advise an alternative treatment plan to help lower your cholesterol without uncomfortable statin side effects. Following are some strategies to consider in coordination with your doctor.
Take a brief break from statin therapy. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the muscle aches or other problems are statin side effects or just part of the aging process. A break of 10 to 14 days gives you time to compare how you feel on and off statins.
Switch to another statin drug. It’s possible, although unlikely, that one statin causes side effects for you while another doesn’t. Simvastatin (Zocor) may be more likely to cause muscle pain than other statins when taken at high doses. Newer drugs are being studied that may have fewer side effects.
Change your dose. A lower dose may reduce side effects but may also reduce benefits. Your doctor may suggest another statin that’s equally effective at a lower dose.
Take it easy when exercising. Exercise may make your muscle aches worse. Talk to your doctor about changing your exercise routine.
Statins can have potentially dangerous interactions with other medications and some foods, making it more likely you’ll have side effects. A chemical in grapefruit juice can interfere with the enzymes that break down the statins in your digestive system, making it uncertain what the effect is on your total cholesterol. You should still be able to have some grapefruit or grapefruit juice, but talk to your doctor about limits.
People taking statins either alone or in combination with amiodarone (Cordarone), a medication for irregular heart rhythms, or gemfibrozil (Lopid) have an increased risk of severe side effects. Side effects can also occur when taking statins and certain antifungal medications or antibiotics. Those taking antidepressants or medications to suppress the immune system with a statin may be more likely to have muscle aches.
Follow a healthy lifestyle in addition to taking statins. Eat a healthy diet to lower LDL and triglyceride levels. Exercise daily to help raise HDL levels. Maintain a healthy weight to help raise HDL levels and lower triglycerides. Quit smoking to improve your lipid levels.
The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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